July 17, 2012

New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters pulled back the curtain on political reporting Monday, revealing that many reporters now allow sources with the presidential campaigns to approve the quotes that will appear in their stories. He wrote that “it was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly.”

Here’s one: The Associated Press. “We don’t permit quote approval,” AP spokesman Paul Colford told me by email. “We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.” That puts the AP in agreement with 58 percent of the people who said in our Twitter poll that they never let sources review quotes. (The poll is totally unscientific, changing as more people vote, and should be taken with the grain of salt that you normally apply to Twitter.)

In a followup conversation, Colford said that AP reporters do conduct interviews on background and then negotiate to get certain parts on the record. “You’d be a fool to turn those down,” he said. But, he said, an AP reporter would not go along with a source who said, “I want those three sentences you want to use sent over to me to be put through my rinse cycle.”

Peters wrote that “quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.” Among the news outlets that have agreed to such terms: Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters, The Huffington Post and The New York Times.

But at the AP, “the core standing here is that we don’t ever agree to vetting or changing of quotes spoken to us in any context,” Colford said. “It would surprise me greatly if this has happened.”

Sally Buzbee, the AP’s Washington bureau chief, said she views changing quotations retroactively as a “red line” that her journalists shouldn’t cross.

“I think most of our reporters know to push back in a situation like that,” she said. And if a source insists upon editing a quotation as a condition for using it on the record, “then you just don’t use the quote.”

Buzbee said campaign reporters at all news outlets must deal with intense competition and demanding sources, and the rules of engagement change over time. “Campaign reporting is really hard, and the elbows get thrown; let’s put it that way.” But she doesn’t believe her reporters are missing stories because they won’t let sources alter their quotations.

“Their sources know they’re honest, fair, straight dealers. That’s the basis we try to play ball on. It doesn’t always work, but that’s where I think our best chance of breaking news is.”

In an election year, “campaigns try vociferously to control their message. We are very concerned in campaign years about all forms of efforts to control the press.”

Some of the responsibility for holding the line falls on editors, she said. “If someone else has a fantastic quote and you don’t, you have to support your reporters if they’re doing the right thing,” Buzbee said.

“We don’t like the practice,” New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet told Peters. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”

Baquet tells The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that since the Times published its story, editors are “reviewing our policy.

New York Times Magazine national politics writer Mark Leibovich tells Wemple, “The reason this is such a drag is that you’re introducing a retroactive element of negotiation that can become very, very dicey and very, very complicated.”

Update: Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris says, “Quote doctoring does bother me, or anything that does smack of not looking out for readers’ interest.”

Related:There’s a standard for whether or not a quote should appear in a news piece: whether or not the subject actually said it.” (Time) | “When journalists give sources the opportunity to fix up what they’ve said, we become complicit in their spin.” (Guardian)

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
Steve Myers

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